“We are definitely in a challenging economic environment, which is making it difficult to match last year’s export volumes,” says Philip Seng, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF). “But our products continue to command an excellent price in the international markets and provide substantial returns to U.S. producers, which is critically important at a time when they face extremely high production costs.”

According to USMEF, beef exports in September (the most recent data available) were 17% less than a year earlier on a volume basis and 4% less on a value basis. Keep in mind that part of the decline has to do with fewer production days during the month.

Due to high prices, though, beef export equivalent value was up 7% to $227.65/head of fed slaughter.

BEEF Video: USMEF Shares Its Beef Export Outlook

For January through September, beef export volume is 12% less than the same period a year ago, but beef export value of $4.1 billion is 2% ahead of last year’s record pace and had already exceeded the value of beef exports for all of 2010.

Analysts with the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) note in the November Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook, “Excluding Japan, decreases in exports have come from traditionally top U.S. export countries, while exports to destinations in Asia have been primarily higher.”

On the other side of the ledger, ERS analysts say beef imports through the third quarter were 10% more than in 2011, less than expected earlier in the year. “U.S. beef imports in 2012 have been largely constrained by lower import levels from Canada – 13% less year-over-year through the third quarter,” they say.

A Closer Look: Japan Is Bright Spot For Beef Exports

Imports from Central America and Argentina were less through the third quarter as well, while imports from Australia and New Zealand increased.